Hundreds of residents packed into the Knights of Columbus on Wednesday night to meet with Rep. Mike Capuano, D-Somerville, and weigh in on future improvements to Rutherford Avenue and Sullivan Square. Judging by the 50 or so people who spoke at the event, the crowd seemed to be evenly split: half in favor of a surface redesign that would fill in the underpasses on Rutherford Avenue and half in favor of upgrades that would preserve the underpasses.
Capuano launched the meeting with a 30-minute speech, assuring the crowd that he was not interested in halting the project, which is already months in the making by Boston's Transportation Department. Capuano has secured $17 million in federal funding for the project and he said he intends to see it used.
"I know some people have communicated that I've been heavy-handed or have imposed my will," he said. "This is Charlestown and I think you appreciate clear talk. …What I want to do is what you want to do. But I need to know what that is in a consensus type way."
After hearing comments from the public for the better part of three hours, Capuano said he wanted residents to take more time to consider options for the Rutherford Ave/Sullivan Square project, form an opinion and let him know their thoughts — so he could advocate one way or the other for the neighborhood.
But many people in attendance Wednesday told Capuano they'd already taken all the time they needed to consider redesign options. The city hosted eight meetings over the course of 18 months. Several residents attended all eight meetings, learned about various proposals from city planners and traffic engineers. Ultimately these residents endorsed a redesign plan that would transform Rutherford Avenue from a highway to a boulevard, create a buffer to residential areas, install a bike path and make the area more pedestrian-friendly. The Charlestown Neighborhood Council also supports this plan.
"We want to protect the decision the community has made," said Nathan Blanchett.
However, there were many neighbors at the meeting claiming they'd been left out of the decision-making process. They hadn't heard about the planning meetings. They didn't know the details of the city's proposal. Some say they didn't know the project was even in the works. And they were raising concerns about what would happen to traffic on residential streets if the underpasses were removed.
Bill Galvin, a member of the Neighborhood Council who is against the surface option, told the crowd, "cars are going to be backed up. The quality of life is going down. … The surface plan creates more and better development parcels. That's money for the BRA. Real estate taxes for the city.
"The city is sacrificing the people of Charlestown for its own interests. What's in the best interest of the city is not in the best interest of Charlestown."
Galvin, along with John Dillon, a former member of the Neighborhood Council, have been leading a grassroots initiative to stop the surface option redesign. They've collected signatures on a petition and spent time mobilizing neighbors to fight the project.
Proponents of the surface option have launched their own initiative in recent weeks, with a web site (surfaceoptionsupporters.com) and their own petition. At Wednesday's meeting, residents in favor of the surface option design wore pink stickers to identify their allegiance.
Surface option supporters say eliminating the underpasses and transforming Rutherford Avenue into a boulevard could change the neighborhood — for the better. It would increase green space, it could foster development of a commercial strip that could resemble Main Street and effectively reduce traffic by improving the overall flow of vehicles.
Capuano interjected during the public comment portion of the meeting of the few times. He repeatedly insisted he did not yet have an opinion, one way or the other, on the project. He also told the crowd that there was not a simple A or B option — that perhaps the community could work out a plan that could accommodate all interests and concerns.
Judy Brennan, a Neighborhood Council member and lifelong resident of Charlestown (like many of the participants at Wednesday's meeting) perhaps best summarized the sentiment of so many people in attendance.
She said she'd been involved in a discussion about improving Rutherford Avenue and Sullivan Square for more than 20 years. "The fact that I'm sitting here now, in this same position, I want to run myself into the middle of Rutherford Avenue. Please, we have got to move on this," she said.
"We can't segregate or bifurcate this plan like we're trying to do. It only works altogether. It's a whole piece that works together."
Brennan reminded the crowd that Rutherford Avenue and Sullivan Square were originally designed to account for traffic while the Central Artery was constructed, and that it's function has past.
"It's time for us to take back Rutherford Ave. There was housing, there was development on both sides of it before. We want to get that back."